Jack Leach has just been deposited well over long on for six by Rishabh Pant; a man who seems to play better when there’s rough outside his off stump.
Undeterred, Leach tosses it up again but drags his length back. Pant doesn’t get to the pitch of the ball. He’s dragged it towards deep mid wicket.
The ball hangs in the air as ambient sound effects and a lone cry of “catch it” provide a soft soundtrack to a long silence.
Leach knows that the first half of the plan has worked. He follows the ball with unblinking eyes.
Sadly, by the time the ball makes its way back down to earth, it’s just over Lawrence.
Leach buries his bald head, glistening with perspiration, in his hands. Perhaps aware of the message being conveyed by his body language, he tries to pass it off as a routine head scratch.
It looks awkward. It doesn’t work.
Pant would go onto pummel Leach for another three maximums over the leg side boundary.
His figures at one point during India’s first innings read 8 – 0 – 79 – 0.
England, for their part, dismissed Pujara and Pant in quick succession with India still more than 350 runs in arrears. Yet, comparisons were drawn — by commentators and social media users alike — between Leach’s horror spell and Simon Kerrigan’s traumatic debut. It’s only natural to worry about a bowler’s psyche after they are subjected to such a brutal assault.
Fast-forward a day and a half, and England have just pulled off a resounding 227-run win over India.
Anderson, with a three-wicket burst, shoved his fingers into bullet wounds inflicted by none other than Leach, who went from being Pant’s bunny to skipper Root’s trump card. Just as Kohli and Ashwin started up the ambulance, attempting to drive India to safety, the bespectacled bulldozers cut across lanes of traffic to ram the hosts off the highway.
For the second time in two innings, he picked up Ashwin with one that drifted in, bounced, and spun away from the right-hander. Much like the first innings, where India looked like avoiding the follow on, the wicket came at a crucial juncture of the game.
While many captains would have banished him to the boundary for the rest of the game, Root deserves credit for backing his premier finger spinner, who bowled 26 of the 58.1 overs that England sent down in the fourth innings. The decision to open with Leach worked wonders with a dream delivery that clipped Rohit Sharma’s off stump. Perhaps that made it easier for Root to keep using Leach, and it’s a good thing he did.
As Andy Zaltzman pointed out on Twitter, Jack Leach has taken 36 wickets in the second innings of tests at an average of 20.08. Of 77 spinners with 25 or more 2nd innings wickets since 1970, only Colin Miller has a better average. While Leach’s career is younger than more celebrated names like Ravindra Jadeja and Ravichandran Ashwin, who trail him in that list, there is a large sample size of his ability to bounce back from cruel twists of fate.
Leach should have made his debut well before he lined up for England against New Zealand in March 2018. When Zafar Ansari was ruled out midway through England’s last tour to India in 2016, there was a minor social media furor as Liam Dawson was called up as a replacement. It later emerged that Leach’s bowling action had been found illegal.
Yet, he successfully remodeled his action and returned with 51 championship wickets in 2017 to earn a call up for the New Zealand tour. Even after a finger injury ruled him out of the start of the 2018 English season, Leach bounced back again, taking 12 wickets at 25.83 in four ashes tests.
Just as it looked like he had cemented his place as England’s frontline spinner, he was hospitalized with a bout of sepsis caused by immunosuppressant medication he takes to manage the Crohn’s disease he suffers from.
“I was out of it, really. My blood pressure was dropping quickly, my heart rate was 190 and my temperature was 40 degrees. That’s when they called an ambulance and got me to hospital,” he told the PA news agency in March of last year.
At one point, he thought to himself: “Don’t fall asleep because you might not wake up”.
Leach was so ill that he thought he was going to die. Let that sink in for a moment…
Jack Leach and Rishabh Pant couldn’t be more different, regardless of what criteria you used to compare the two.
Yet, they are both outstandingly brave in their own contrasting ways.
While Pant’s audacity is overt and ridiculously entertaining, Leach’s understated bravery has gradually revealed itself over the years. Nothing about Leach’s outward appearance screams ‘match-winner.’ He looks more like a Doctor of Mathematics than a professional athlete.
But look deeper, and you will find someone who has managed a potentially career-threatening disease with an inspiring brand of resilience common to many of our favorite sportspeople.
His character has allowed him to put Pant’s pyrotechnics behind him. His skill has taken him to fifty test wickets. And his unheralded, battle-hardened gonads will fight to ensure that he’s here to stay.